A lot of people misunderstand Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The way most people tell it, Malcolm X wanted to fight racism with violence, but Dr. King would rather turn the other cheek. His image as a nonviolent preacher has prompted many people to bastardize his legacy in the decades after his assassination. While pacifism was crucial to his religious beliefs and his political strategy, Dr. King’s demands for racial and financial equality were still direct, confrontational, and unrelenting — which is what made him such a consistent target of the United States government, police, and racist organizations. Unfortunately, each year, the same quotes from his storied life are recycled and misused, distorting so much of what he really had to say.
To celebrate his legacy, Mic is highlighting some of his less acknowledged quotes as a reminder of how Dr. King was more than a pacifist — he was a rebel ready to die for what he believed in.
Poverty is Cannibalism
“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”
Dr. King saw the fight for economic and employment inequality as just important as the fight against racism — and in his final book, 1967's Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, he didn’t sugarcoat the inhumanity of poverty in America. Comparing it to cannibalism shocks the mind into attention, and tying it to the savagery humans employed to survive before we were civilized people crushes the soul to know we haven’t progressed further than destroying one another for personal gain. In the same book, Dr. King proposes a way to eradicate America’s poverty sin by arguing “we must create full employment or we must create incomes,” intimating that some form of guaranteed income from the government is needed to right one of America’s deadliest sins. Dr. King wasn’t going to turn the other cheek while American capitalism feasts on its own.
Dying For What You Believe in
“If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”
From his “Great March to Freedom Rally” speech in Detroit on June 23, 1963, Dr. King made it plain and clear life is only worth living if you’re willing to lose it for something you believe in. Dr. King may have preached forgiveness and nonviolence, but he always made a point to remind people he was willing to die for the things he stood for.
Hellish immorality of war
“The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”
Dr. King was one of the staunchest opponents of the Vietnam War, leading anti-war marches and pointing out the hypocrisy of America spending money on an unjust war when the rights of Black people in America were being trampled. In this quote, Dr. King makes it abundantly clear pacifism is not synonymous with neutrality in times of social upheaval. Dr. King may have had love for everyone, but deep down he damned those standing on the sidelines to hell. It’s also a fitting quote for the leagues of conservative politicians who stay silent on current issues such as voting rights, while still speaking King’s name every January.
“Never forget, everything Hitler did in Germany was legal. It was legal to do everything Hitler did to the Jews. It was a law in Germany that Hitler issued himself. It was wrong and illegal to comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. I’ll tell you, if I had lived in Hitler’s Germany with my attitude, I would have openly broken that law. I would have practiced civil disobedience.”
For Dr. King, morality always trumped man-made laws. Speaking to a congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on November 5, 1967, Dr. King stressed the importance of breaking the rules when the rules are made to break the people. In the above quote, Dr. King expresses how his disgust with an immoral law would move him to empathize with the Jewish people of Hitler’s Germany, even if meant breaking the law of one of the most vicious dictators the world has ever seen. It’s also a sadly timeless quote, considering that so much of the current judicial system still has biases against BIPOC people. Dr. King may not have advocated for murder as a solution, but he wasn’t blindly obeying unjust laws either.
The truth about riots
“Let me say as I've always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. ... But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”
In King’s 1967 speech at Stanford University, titled “The Other America,” he explained the context of the Watts riots of 1965 to a white audience. When politicians dismiss riots as barbaric, opportunistic, or criminal, and use King’s message of “peace” and “tolerance” to attempt to quiet them, they should keep this quote from him in mind instead.
Anger to change
“If I wish to compose or write or pray or preach well, I must be angry. Then all the blood in my veins is stirred, and my understanding is sharpened.”
Even though Dr. King often preached the virtues of non-violence, that doesn’t mean it didn’t come from a place of anger. Docility during times of social injustice dulls the mind into complicity, but anger during those same times can keep the mind aware of the threats around. So, when you hear Dr. King remark “nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon” in his acceptance speech for his 1964 Noble Peace Prize, just know that his weapon is loaded with rage.